Learning from the Past for a Bright Post-Pandemic Future

Learning from the past is critical as governments address COVID-19. Photo: ADB
Learning from the past is critical as governments address COVID-19. Photo: ADB

By Sonia Chand Sandhu, Brahm Prakash, Mary Anne A. Chaneco

Carefully evaluating development projects, and learning from success and challenges of past efforts, is more important than ever as governments fight COVID-19.

The global halt brought about by COVID-19 emphasizes the need for a more holistic approach to development that integrates public health policies, environmental protection, and reduces risks from climate change.

To do this, we need to learn lessons from the past and implement these to ensure vulnerable sections of the population and poor economies are better protected. Strengthening societies and focusing on sustainability is critical.

In the wake of COVID-19, business-as-usual is not possible. A lot is riding on the capacity of institutions, government policies, capabilities of decision-makers in public and private sectors, and leadership at all levels of government. This depends on the ability to learn and examine lessons.

Governments and international organizations, including multilateral development banks and international financial institutions, need to make learning an essential business process to avoid repeating mistakes and wasting resources. This includes harnessing experience, understanding what works and what does not, and using new technologies. 

There are different ways to achieve this when undertaking development projects. First, formalizing and optimizing feedback mechanisms throughout the project cycle, as well as combining monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Currently, development projects often undergo only sporadic monitoring and evaluation without the benefit of incorporating lessons learned.

In the wake of COVID-19, business-as-usual is not possible.

The project cycle provides many opportunities for lessons to be identified and coded, from conceptualization, inception, design, implementation to evaluation at completion.  The implementation phase of projects financed by multilateral development banks typically lasts about 5 to 7 years and provides many opportunities for effective feedback and mid-course corrections through focused monitoring. 

Second, consultation and engagement with stakeholders provide opportunities to incorporate just-in-time solutions and real-time feedback. This also provides an avenue for harnessing experience and indigenous knowledge, which can be a valuable for putting operations into local context and ensuring that they serve communities over the long term.

Third, computer-based information and communication technologies have helped to fuse evaluation insights together with data, graphics, and analytics, to build capacity based on lessons learned.

ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department is piloting artificial intelligence tools that analyze evaluation documents for lessons learned by unlocking evidence-based knowledge embedded within them, a daunting task which would be time consuming otherwise. 

This innovative learning tool makes it easier to integrate lessons in operations cycles. Artificial intelligence applications delve into the repositories of tacit and explicit knowledge – information buried deep in remote and other obscure locations – and generate and rank lessons that enable users to find solutions that fit countries’ needs and cultures.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caught governments and public institutions off guard. But it is an opportunity for institutions to re-organize and redefine their responsibilities across the public and private sectors, engage other stakeholders and development communities, and use new technologies to move toward a more sustainable future. 

Equally urgent is the need for those who evaluate development projects and programs to develop insights and deploy lessons that harness knowledge, facilitate access, and use lessons more meaningfully. This will ensure that actions taken today will lead to decisions with lasting impact for our children and our larger world. Learning from the past can help the present, and inform the future.